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‘Why Stormont Fell’

The Stormont regime was in power in Northern Ireland for 50 years. For much of that period it appeared immovable, one of the most dominant political hierarchies in Western Europe. However, it remained at all times a regime on the fringes of stability. Fear of collapse and hostility from the Free State and Republic framed Unionist attitudes; a perception of exclusion and discrimination framed Nationalist attitudes. Both ethno-politcal groups found themselves corralled into a position where political compromise was difficult.

This essay will look at Northern Ireland in three periods: from the formation of the state until 1966; from 1966-69, when, with hindsight, the fate of the Stormont system hung in the balance; and the slide into oblivion from 1969-72. This essay, being limited in space, will focus on the key communal relationships and policy decisions which ultimately doomed the Stormont regime.

The Fifty Year Stalemate

The Northern Ireland state was born in chaos. Widespread civil disturbance marked its early years. Attacks on security forces and wholescale intimidation verging on ethnic cleansing were characteristic of the period. From a very early period the State showed itself unwilling or unable to secure an equal place for Roman Catholics within the state, despite Craig’s rhetoric. South of the border, Civil War raged between pro- and anti-treaty forces in 1922. Many Unionists believed that a victory for de Valera would inevitably result in an invasion of Northern Ireland and dire consequences for its unionist population. The leading role played by Roman Catholic clergy in civil disobedience campaigns and boycotts convinced many Protestants that the belief that Home Rule was Rome Rule was entirely accurate.

The state’s chaotic birth pains led to a situation where relationships between the communities were locked into a vicious spiral of nationalist alienation and unionist insecurity.

By the late 1920’a degree of stability had returned to both Irish states. However the abolition of Proportional Representation in 1929 resulted in a fossilisation of the party system which, while perhaps being to Ulster Unionist advantage in the short term, ultimately led to a fatal flaw in Northern Ireland’s democratic structures. The Westminster model of democracy which had been introduced in Northern Ireland presupposes a regular turnover of government and opposition. In abolishing PR, Craig was not intending to diminish Nationalist representation, but to create a rigid two party system in which the Unionist Party was, due to demographics, the only possible winner. Threats to the UUP’s hegemony of the Protestant vote - Labour, Liberals and various leftist Independent Unionists - were straitjacketed by the new electoral system.

Despite their radically differing ideologies and attitudes to democracy, there is a curious similarity in the development of the political system in Communist Eastern Europe and ante-bellum Northern Ireland. In both cases the ruling elite came to see loyalty to the ruling party and loyalty to the state as being indubitably intertwined. In Eastern Europe this was legitimised by Leninist-Stalinist political ideology. In Northern Ireland, as the party was unable to embrace Catholics due to the connections between the UUP and the Loyal Institutions, the state was similarly unwilling to embrace Catholics. O’Neill’s attempts to open up the UUP to Roman Catholics were doomed to failure as many of the party’s grass-roots were unable to recognise the difference between religio-ethnic background and political opinion. Some excuse the Unionist leadership as not only their entire political experience was framed in uncertainty about the very existence of the state, but that Nationalists were unwilling to co-operate with the state from it’s inception. However, the Ulster Unionist Party enjoyed secure political control of Northern Ireland for half a century and it was in prime position to make a gesture to the minority. Moreover, had it only had the foresight to realise it, it was its preferred political order that stood to gain through the inclusion of Catholics in the state.

1966-9: From Hope to Anxiety

Despite this, there had been a significant change in the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland by the mid-1960’s. O’Neill’s government made a number of psychologically significant, but largely cosmetic, gestures to the Catholic community, and many moderates, Unionist, Nationalist and non-aligned, believed that there was increasing momentum towards a fairer society.

However, this mood of optimism was replaced by the end of the decade by the beginning of Western Europe’s most protracted post-war ethnic conflict. A number of factors contributed to this.

Any process of reform of Northern Ireland’s political system was bound to face major difficulties, as whatever optimism was abroad, relationships within Northern Irish society remained as dry as tinder. Extremists could always hinder progress by heightening communal tensions. As early as 1966 Loyalists heightened tensions, already high due to the impending fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, with the Malvern Street murders. The following years witnessed the protests at John Moorman’s visit to St. Anne’s Cathedral, and as the civil rights campaign emerged, Loyalists, and on occasions the police, over-reacted to Civil Rights demonstrations. Loyalists protest during the O’Neill era culminated with the bombing of Silent Valley reservoir.

Nor can Republicans be absolved from responsibility. The decision by a small group of extreme leftists to press ahead with the ‘long march’ from Belfast to Derry in New Year 1969, which led to the Burntollet incident, was condemned by many in the Civil Rights Campaign at the time, and arguably sounded the death knell for O’Neill’s programme of reforms. It also demonstrated the ability of small groups of extremists to hijack the political agenda in deeply divided societies. Another factor which must be borne in mind is that not all within the Civil Rights Association were of honourable intentions. Sinn Fein clearly had an entryist agenda with regard to the CRA.

There is a danger here in falling into the trap of historical inevitability. Whatever difficulties faced the reform programme in the mid-’60s from extreme elements, they did not ipso facto rule out any possibility of reform. A number of key failures on the part of Northern Ireland and British government policy must also be examined.

O’Neill’s personality was very much at fault. He had very little feeling for ordinary working-class Unionists, and despite Bloomfield’s protestations to the contrary, some comments would indicate a deep well of sectarianism below O’Neill’s genteel surface. He, and much of his circle, owed their liberalism to their English education, however this also served to detach them from the bulk of the Northern Irish population. They too seemed remarkably naive in the black arts of political spinning. Despite polling 44% of the total vote, and a decisive majority of Unionist votes, O’Neillites had hyped up their own chances to such an extent that they managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Faulkner may have been a better man to handle a transition to a more liberal society, however O’Neill and Faulkner suffered a serious personality clash and were bitter rivals throughout this period.

Ultimately, as Bloomfield concedes, O’Neill’s reforms fell between two stools. Enough to give Paisley enough political ammunition to panic many Unionists, but not enough to placate an increasingly politically vocal Nationalist community. The British government also came under pressure in this period, with the increasing parliamentary activism of Gerry Fitt and elements of Labour. They, however, hid behind the Government of Ireland Act and parliamentary conventions on Northern Ireland. Not only did this amount to fiddling while Rome began to burn, but it also perpetuated the myth that Stormont, not London, had actual control of Northern Ireland. This myth would be brutally shattered at prorogation.

1969-72: Conflagration

After the Apprentice Boys’ March in Derry in August 1969, British troops were placed on active duty on the streets of Northern Ireland. From that point on, the Northern Ireland Government were no longer sole masters of there own destiny, as the British government would increasingly look for solutions that would ensure security for their own troops, while a reborn IRA attempted to engender civil chaos to overthrow the government.

Chichester-Clark and Faulkner failed both the political and military tests of their regime. Their political test was to draw Catholics into the decision-making process, thereby neutralising much of the IRA’s propaganda material. This need not necessarily have involved overtly Nationalist parties, as the NILP commanded the sizeable Roman Catholic support at that time. However, both due to firmly held political views and due to pressure from the growing tide of support for Paisley. Such efforts as were made, bringing G B Newe and David Bleakley into the cabinet, were seen as pure tokenism.

The military test was failed as Unionists, at that stage in control of the army, could not but over-react to threat of the IRA and under-estimate that of Loyalists. This failure led to vicious cycle of violence, and after each crisis, the Unionist Party, sensing that the very existence of the state was on the line, forcing them into ever more panicked reactions. An over-estimation of Catholic support for the IRA led to the Falls Curfew, which brought only increased IRA support. As a reaction to increased IRA activity, the Stormont government introduced Internment, which led to a massive upsurge of violence and yet more support for the IRA.

While the Stormont government cannot be blamed for Bloody Sunday, the pressure of world opinion on the British Government made it imperative for them to react to Bloody Sunday. Unionist failure to grasp the importance of international opinion as the world’s media flocked to Northern Ireland in those years was another factor in the demise of the regime. After Bloody Sunday, Unionists did not make a convincing case for the retention of Stormont, and after a short period Heath prorogued the Northern Ireland Parliament.


Historical inevitability is the most tempting of fallacious analyses. While, with hindsight, the fall of Stormont seems inevitable, I have highlighted a number of key political decisions which, handled differently, may have led to a different resolution of the problems which faced the Stormont experiment from its beginnings. This essay may seem to unduly focus on the failures of the British Government and Unionism. However, while it is undoubtedly the case that irredentism from south of the border and non-co-operation by northern Nationalism played a part in bringing about the cataclysm which engulfed Northern Ireland, it is nonetheless the case that Stormont and London were the prime wielders of political power in the state. They were most able to affect a positive change in the situation, and if it is in any sense meaningful to apportion blame, it is they must shoulder the majority of that blame.

Bloomfield, Ken, Stormont in Crisis, Blackstaff, Belfast, 1994.
English, Richard and Walker, Graham, Unionism in Modern Ireland, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1996
Gailey, Andrew, Crying in The Wilderness, Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University of Belfast, Belfast, 1995.
Hennessey, Thomas, A History of Northern Ireland, 1920-1996, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1997.
Kelley, Kevin J, The Long War - Northern Ireland and the IRA, Zed Books, London, 1988.
Mitchell, Paul and Wilford, Rick, Politics in Northern Ireland, Westview, Oxford, 1999.
Sharrock, David and Davenport, Mark, Man of War, Man of Peace?, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1997.
Wallace, Martin, Northern Ireland - Fifty Years of Self Government, David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1971.

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